Through Urban Fantasy Darkishly
tropes from the darker side of urban fantasy
by S M HENLEY
It’s that space in the Urban Fantasy universe that gets dark. I’m not talking horror dark or terror-filled torture-porn dark. Just darkish.
And it’s a style of UF that sadly seems to have fallen out of fashion. I don’t know about you, but I love to see the darker side.
Darker UF shares the standard tropes of the regular genre, but throws them further into shadow.
It’s the place where the hero and the anti-hero sometimes twist together. Where we suddenly realise we’re rooting for the bad girl despite all the terrible things we’ve seen her do. And where we sometimes have a pronounced level of discomfort–at least temporarily–as certain events materialise on the page.
Where we get to peek into that other world–the shadowside. A glimpse of a horror or dystopian setting. The suggestion of a blood-soaked universe we never get to fully experience.
Alternatively, it could be a look into the hero or heroine’s psyche: the part of them that isn’t quite as wholesome as we’d like to believe. The part of them that we’re worried they won’t or can’t change. But we read on anyway because there is something mesmerising about watching the dark take over for a while.
It’s those darker aspects that offset the lighter moments we all love about UF–the witty dialogue, sudden ridiculous situations in highly charged moments, unlikely relationships springing up, the comic relief of the sidekick. All of this works so much better for me, when we have the darkish too.
It makes the light, lighter.
In this post, we’ll use TV Urban Fantasy rather than literature–there are some cool gifs to help me illustrate my points. But in a subsequent post, I’ll recommend some awesome darker Urban Fantasy reads for you.
For now, let Faith lead you. After all, she’s one of the best UF anti-heroines I know.
The Dark Villain
Let’s talk about Ramsay Snow (yes, I know, Epic not Urban Fantasy, but bear with me).
For me, he’s the best villain in Game of Thrones. I hate him. You hate him. Goodness, even my mother hates him. He’s not even an anti-hero or light-weight baddy–he’s a fully fledged villainy-villain.
And he’s awesome.
Yes, the poor guy’s got daddy issues. But NOTHING excuses the dog hunting thing, the cock chopping thing, or the way he treats his wife on their wedding night.
Those scenes make you cringe, maybe want to barf, and then his end comes, and we cheer.
A villain like Ramsay totally has a place in the darker side of UF. His presence allows the light to be thrown into relief, to appreciate those comic snarky elements we love so much.
Bad Things Happening To Ordinary People
Wham! Something happens to a character we love that isn’t just bad luck, it’s a big painful slap in the mush which ends up with our usually strong heroine forced into a situation of weakness. Her supernatural talents now mean nothing. She’s simply human, and lost. One of us.
Events like these happen in all genres. They are the root of character’s dramatic arc or the trigger for conflict. It especially happens in Horror–it’s a trope for that genre. But, the difference is, that in darker UF, we can expect our hero to recover, and regain his strength. In Horror, that rarely happens.
In The Body, Buffy’s mother dies. Her pain is palpable. We all experience her shock, her despair. We see her give up.
It’s darkish UF at its best. Our supernatural character is forced into a situation that no amount of super human strength or magic can help her with. Her human weakness takes her to the dark side a darn sight quicker than any vampire fight or werewolf encounter.
Good People Gone Bad
This is our ultimate hero/anti-hero mash-up.
Using another Buffy the Vampire Slayer example, in Villains, Willow is the ultimate good geek girl gone bad.
In grief and anger for the loss of her honey, she completely embraces the dark. And for a while she loses everything that makes her human. She’s lost all compassion, sympathy, and forgiveness. She’s just a dark manifestion of her anger and pain. And just to hammer the point home, even her hair goes black, and she gets a nasty case of dark magic veiny skin.
In this scene, with echoes of Ramsay Snow, she flays her enemy alive! Dark people, dark!
But it’s only an “ish” because even though the scene is horrifying, we are confident enough in her character that she’ll be okay in the end. In typical UF style, deep down, we know we won’t lose her. That yellow-crayon-loving humanity will save her (a reference for the fans.)
No Way Back or The Beast Just Swallowed You Whole!
OMG Swansong – the final episode of Season 5 of Supernatural! Want to see UF done well? Watch. This. Episode.
There’s a moment like this in every darker Urban Fantasy. The moment where our hero or heroine have lost everything. Where they’ve FAILED!
Not just a minor failure–a glaring in-your-face pain-filled disaster. It’s the end of everything they hold good, true, or honourable. We rarely see a hero or heroine going so deep into this much pain or fear or despair in the lighter-shade of UF. But on the darkish side, this is our bread and butter.
Being UF, there’s always a chance (maybe a pretty big chance) that it’ll all end up fine in the end. But, then again the consequences may leave a (dark) mark…
And as your bonus extra, here’s Spike. Devastated. He couldn’t save her and now Buffy’s dead. But you know how that goes.
Turning Traditions on their Head
A common Urban Fantasy element, is to include aspects of mythological worlds and creatures. Often twisting them out of context while bringing them to a modern setting. The darker UF uses this technique too, but focuses on making the twist that much more twisty, and dissecting those myths for the darkest elements.
There’s no room for Disney in these worlds!
Ironically, this trope is actually reaching back to the way these mythologies or folk tales were first depicted. Ever read any original fairy tales? Those suckers are gruesome! And the Greek or Roman mythologies, or the Celtic legends? Blood and guts everywhere. Murder and mayhem runs amok.
So really, the darker UF isn’t so much turning these traditions on their head, but are requiring us to re-look at them in their original dark form.
Just watch as the wife of the Anti-Claus prepares Sam and Dean for a Christmas sacrifice. Gives you a taste of torture up close and personal. Unlike Ramsay, at least its only the fingernails that hit the floor.
The Body Swap
In Angel geeky Fred becomes the ancient goddess Illyria. In BTVS, Faith and Buffy literally change bodies, Giles becomes a demon, and Willow becomes a ghost. In Supernatural, everyone seems to become Lucifer at some point. It just goes on.
So why is this such a popular trope, particularly on the darker side of the genre?
It is about the reversal of fortunes: the good and the bad swapping spaces. Seeing from different perspectives. It shows us that the light and the dark often share the same space, and how easy it is to slip from one to the other. The monster becomes the man, the man, the monster, etc. Even, nature versus nurture comes to call, especially if it involves more of a shifter archetype.
Of course, it’s also great fun for us. Because we get to explore these dichotomies from the safety of our chairs.
But us darker fans are forced further still, to consider what side of the divide we’d fall on in a given situation. Under what circumstances could a demon do good? Is an angel ever truly evil? Does a murderer have a saving grace? Is violence just another weapon of power?
Darker UF often explores those questions.
Here, the Illyria/former Fred combo is espousing more violence because for the first time the ancient goddess is feeling grief. Through Wesley, she’s learned to value humanity–something she could not understand before. Now he’s dead, and she turns back to violence as revenge is the only thing that makes sense to her. And it is probably the most likely human response in the circumstances.
Setting Has a Life Of Its Own
Settings are integral to good Urban Fantasy. They should live and breath, and be as important to the story as the plot itself.
And in dark UF, the setting must be, well, dark.
Violence, resistence, oppression, corruption. A night time only world. A world where dark magic runs the show. Or, maybe, a certain dark family is making a bid for power.
There are multiple ways of depicting a dark world. And even twisting into a non-futuristic paranormally-based dystopia is common.
Or the darkness can be more subtle.
In Angel, the Wolfram and Hart building is at the centre of everything. Not only does it house the baddies for the majority of the series, it gives access to other mysterious dimensions. All manner of nasty beasties are locked up in the basement. And, symbolically, the building even represents the Angel/Angelus dichotomy.
The city, in this case LA, is also supernaturally charged and very important to the feel of the show, but it is the building itself which is a manifesation of darkness.
It’s so unsettling. The hero or heroine we adore, suddenly does something TERRIBLE.
Usually, it’s misguided. Sometimes it’s planned, but we don’t know why, yet. Sometimes it is inordinately inappropriate and makes us hugely uncomfortable. Often we know it’s been building, but it always feels sudden. We turn the page and we’re in the middle of this scene from Hell.
It grates at us. It challenges us. We hope that it’ll be over soon, and yet we read every word over and over.
This is not our “Good People Gone Bad” trope, this is a brief but vicious sojourn to the dark side. And it shakes us to the core.
Buffy attacks Spike because she hates herself. And for one moment she convinces herself he doesn’t matter, he’s a vampire after all, and if she beats him to a bloody pulp, she’s also taking care of her own internal demon. The one that says, she’s worthless, unloved, and inhuman.
It doesn’t have to be a fight. It could be an awful decision, or a deliberate cover up to throw someone off the trail. It could be the arrival of a new and shocking character.
But there is always a victim who is powerless, either by choice or design, and they are usually left in a bloody heap on the ground. Sometimes figuratively, but more likely, literally.
Darker UF does this so well. It forces us to hide behind our hands until it’s over. And leaves us feeling so damned uncomfortable, because there is always a little voice in our head asking: well, what would you do?
Fighting… and Dying!
Urban Fantasy has fight scenes. It’s a given.
The difference with the darker side of Urban Fantasy, is that people actually die. Usually, horribly. Or in greater numbers. And most likely there will be more blood and guts than your lighter UF. Be prepared for it to get raw, and paint a pretty graphic picture. Detail, baby, we want detail!
And, maybe even the people die that we want to stay alive. I know, terrible, right!?
We screamed at the TV when Charlie died in Supernatural. NOT FAIR! And in the final scene of Angel, our eponymous hero is fighting the bloody dragon while his soldiers are going down left, right and centre. WTF!
But it is fair. It’s expected. Darker UF is not going to allow everyone to live. Sorry. Just, no.
There’s every chance they will die. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon…
I asked a number of groups on Facebook what made for darker Urban Fantasy. There was a resounding cry of “demons!”
When I probed further, it seems that vampires were not included. Too many good-looking vamps (with sexy abs) out there, I guess. Some were even surprised that I would call a vampire a demon at all. Um, dah!
Digging deeper, it seems demons become more frightening the more likely they are to subject their victim to possession. A subject the lighter UFs are pretty unlikely to explore in much detail. But the darker ones. Yep!
And that’s the core of it. For the majority of us, the idea of possession is terrifying. It demonstrates a loss of control, and could even represent our psychological demons becoming real. So this very much darker trope plays on our worst fears.
To make it a little more palatable, darker UF tends to twist away from the full on heebie-jeebie possession trope; a possessed human may have the ability to magically resist, or a savior standing by to help. Anything more, and we could easily slip into Horror.
Of course, there are many more.
If you have a recommended darker UF novel to share, or you’ve identified a trope I haven’t covered, please let me know. I do aim to do a follow up post about the best of the best of the darker reads.
So, Faith, gonna say goodbye?